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August 03, 2017

New Report Reveals Escalating Assault on Activists, NGOs in Poland

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First today released a new report documenting the Polish government’s escalating assault on NGOs, activists, and civil society as part of its highly concerning backsliding on democratic values. “Poland’s New Front: A Government’s War Against Civil Society,” is based on in-person interviews with activists, civil society organizations, journalists, and academics conducted during a fact-finding mission last month. It finds that critics of government policies, and those protecting minority rights, are being smeared as national traitors, targeted financially, and left vulnerable to threats and physical attacks. 

“The new Polish government’s attacks on the country’s court system and media have, appropriately, garnered widespread attention inside and outside of Poland," noted Human Rights First’s Melissa Hooper. “Less well-understood is how the Polish government is systematically undermining civic actors. The situation has deteriorated since the new ruling party took power, but now it’s getting downright toxic.”

Since assuming power in 2015, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has undertaken a campaign to dismantle the country's Constitutional Tribunal, attacked public media and independent journalists, increased police power and surveillance, and characterized refugees and foreigners as terrorists. The Polish government's actions are part of a wave of anti-democratic activity in Eastern and Central Europe that is both fueling and being powered by rising xenophobia and ultra-nationalism.

On July 6, President Trump visited Warsaw and delivered a speech in which he lauded Poland for its defense of so-called “civilizational values." The Law and Justice government regarded the speech as condoning its assault on separation of powers, free speech, rule of law, and civil society. Days after the speech, Poland’s parliament passed legislation aimed at bringing the country’s judicial system under its control. In response, the State Department released a statement criticizing the legislation, which noted that “a strong and healthy democracy in Poland is vital to relations between our two countries.” Subsequently, Polish President Duda publicly announced that he would veto much of the legislation.

In response to the legislation, tens of thousands of Poles protested in over one hundred cities across the country, including in Law and Justice strongholds. The government labeled protesters as traitors and communists. It is now poised to introduce legislation that would engineer Law and Justice control over all major sources of funding for civil society groups.

“Since the government was unable to complete its takeover of the judiciary, it is now likely to turn its attention toward those that fought its policies: independent civil society groups,” added Hooper. “As a NATO member and democratic success story in eastern Europe, Poland is a vital American ally. The U.S. government needs to view this situation for what it is—a strategic liability.”

Today’s report offers specific recommendations for the Trump Administration and Congress to protect civil society and human rights in Poland, including: 

  • Calling on President Duda, Prime Minister Szydlo, and the head of the Law and Justice Party Jaroslaw Kaczynski to uphold values of democratic, transparent governance, separation of powers, and a robust civil society;
  • Publicly urging the Polish government to end its ideologically-driven campaign against civil society groups and journalists, and to maintain transparent and independent funding procedures for civil society groups;
  • Urging the Polish prime minister and Ministry of Justice to condemn physical attacks on NGOs, immigrants, Muslims, and LGBT groups in Poland;
  • Creating a new fund and emergency assistance program that can serve human rights defenders in Europe, including in Poland; 
  • Urging the European Union to include the Polish government’s systemic assault on civil society as part of the ongoing infringement proceedings concerning Poland’s violations of E.U. rules.

To speak with Hooper or for more information, contact Christopher Plummer at PlummerC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3310.